Wednesday, August 16, 2017

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On holiday for a couple of weeks.
Normal service will resume on the 30th!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Infinity Wars - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

Infinity Wars is the sixth collection of short stories in Jonathan Strahan’s ‘Infinity’ series. I’ve read several of the others, and found they contained some good stories, so I was quite hopeful going into this one. There was a decent mix of authors who I was aware of and those I’d never read before, which always helps.

Infinity Wars is about the future of war. The scope ranges from alien invasions at interstellar distances, down to the human cost of pulling the trigger. In some ways the environs can be familiar – people wading through muck and blood, or in the cold darkness of outer space. In others though, they can be strange or alien – soldiers driven by their subconscious, or government agencies weaponising a climate grown more ferocious after global warming. The stories in this collection look at war across the scale – and provide an imaginative, inventive window into one of humanities oldest pursuits. 

It’s not all explosions and space battles. There’s some great character work going on as well. Nancy Kress gives us “Dear Sarah”, a letter sent home by a soldier now part of an unpopular military – which also touches on the issues of personal and cultural identity, on prejudice, and on the feeling of what is right. There’s a unique voice there, and a sense of personality which grips you as the pages keep turning. Or Indrapramit Das’s “The Moon is not a Battlefield”, which gives us a woman who was once a soldier on the moon, reliving the grace and beauty of her youth, and the dreams which shaped her as she returns to an earth which is less than forgiving. There’s soldiers as heroes, and as bureaucrats. Elizabeth Bear’s “The Perfect Gun” gives us a richly cynical mercenary, someone accustomed to making the amoral choices, whilst working within a ship powered by an AI. The latter becomes perhaps more personable as the tale unfolds. The former is charmingly unlikable, but entirely believable – a person out for themselves, unashamed and unafraid. If you’re looking for characters to shape these stories, then you’re in the right place. Warfare has always had the capacity to break or shape humanity – and the characters here have been exposed to the kind of pressure that moves them, shifts their centre, and lets us explore a raw humanity beneath. 

That isn’t to say there aren’t some storming plots as well. I absolutely love Garth Nix’s “Conversations with an Armory”, where several tired, scarred and wounded men try and talk their way past an Armory AI, in a putative effort to stop an alien invasion. It’s a delicate piece on the costs of war and what happens to those who remain – and also carries an urgency, a sense of the kinetic, a high-stakes story. There’s a race against time, and the consequences for failure are dire. It’s an absolute page turner, and also one with a serious emotional punch. Then there’s the creeping horror of Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Faceless Soldiers, Patchwork Ship”. Here our protagonist is asked to pay the cost to infiltrate an enemy craft and bring it down before it can cause incalculable harm. The risk, though, is assimilation into the collective of the enemy. It hits all the right beats – there’s an organic tension, the smell of something dead or alive in the air, and a growing awareness from the reader that our narrator could become what she’s set out to oppose. It’s a story about loyalty and hard choices – and that kept me turning the pages. 

In the end, this is another solid entry in Strahan’s “Infinity” series. It looks at the lies and truths of war, the mental and physical joys and costs. There’s plenty of humanity on display here – the darker, stranger parts, and the virtues we cling to when everything else is lost. There’s also the strange, the weird, the wonderful and horrifically alien. So if you’re looking to explore some new authors, or want to think about humanity and its conflicts of the future, then this collection is worth your time.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Imposters of Aventil - Marshall Ryan Maresca

The Imposters of Aventil is the third in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s “Maradaine” sequence of novels. The author has also written several other series in the same universe – and if you’ve been following those, there’s some crossover here.

Aventil is one of the districts in the city of Maradaine. In comparison to others that we’ve seen in previous books, it’s rather prosperous. There’s a university, packed out with a large number of well-heeled students – aspiring lawyers, magnates of tomorrow, and the occasional wizard. The streets are fairly clean, and if the money of the University is one reason, another in is because Aventil’s crime is organised, but also fractured. There are several different street gangs, all with their fingers in separate pieces of Aventil territory, and each with their own history and grudges with each other.  That said, they all deeply resent intrusion into that territory from the outside – and will band together to savage interlopers. They’re insulated by a police force which is more lethargic than actively corrupt –unwilling to rock the boat, start trouble, or indeed finish it.  Aventil is, in its way, thriving – money moves and everyone has an interest in a stable neighbourhood, and as a result it has a cosmopolitan and socially active feel. This is especially true of the University, which sees wonderfully insular, with its own politics and problems, looking out on the rest of the neighbourhood from a bubble of privilege you can almost see rising off the page.

The characters…well, there’s the infamous Thorn, of course, and his gang of merry followers. Then there’s Inspector’s Rainey and Welling, brought in to investigate murders, and trying to chase down the Thorn. Alongside them, there’s our connection to the Aventil street gangs, who also happens to be tied to the Thorn. Also a small horde of side characters. I think my only complaint here is that given the smorgasbord of characters present, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with all of them. It’s great seeing the crossover between different aspects of Maresca’s worlds, but I think we could have done with a text twice the size to give them all room to breathe.

Still, the characterisation is solid – especially for Minox and Welling, whose cool competence, and incisive intelligence mixes well with troubled consciences and icy pragmatism. Those two pretty much own any page that they’re on. The Thorn and his gang, on the other hand – well, I need to go back to the earlier books to really get the context of their relationships, I think. But coming to it fresh, there’s a sense of history missing; I was able to get a sense of what tied the characters together, and it all worked, but I suspect that the deeper context from previous books would have helped immensely. Still, they each get their moments to shine. There’s a sequence that felt reminiscent of fight club halfway through the book which really shaped one of the Thorn’s accomplices for me, for example – in their reaction to danger and courage in the face of adversity. They also have a sense of privilege which seems to gradually deflate as the story goes on – as the stakes rise, and they run afoul of meddling inspectors.

They’re joined by our eyes in the gangs. This one was easier to come to without the context, really – a lone actor, of sorts. He’s a man struggling with old loyalties and old curses; an internal monologue turns these over for the reader, with a genuine voice, and a tone that seems tired of the life that’s led this far. There’s loyalty and bravery there as well, and a sense that the centre can not hold. It’s a stark contrast to the Inspector’s view of the criminal fraternity of Aventil as thugs and menaces – noting that there are costs and consequences, that gang work is violent and sometimes ugly, but not stripping away the essential humanity beneath. This is one whom I’d follow again – to see where he ends up, if nothing else

All of these characters are thrown together in a melting pot, as the Thorn appears to go on something of a murder spree. Execept of course that he hasn’t, as far as he knows. Maresca has form in this area – a slow burning plot, with investigations, discoveries, false leads and revelations, leading to an explosive conclusion. He doesn’t disappoint this time either. I was turning pages to work out exactly what was going on, trying to understand what drove the murders, who was behind them and why – and then, as that started to gel together, kept turning pages to see what would happen next. It’s a sharply observed investigative thriller, this one, in a mature and well crafted fantasy world.

Is it worth reading? I suspect if you’re new to Maradaine, you might want to go back to the start of this series, or to the start of Rainey and Welling’s adventures; it works as a standalone, but definitely benefits from exposure to the rest of the series. If you’re already a follower of the Thorn, I’d say pick this one up. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Artemis - Andy Weir

Artemis. It’s a new stand alone from Andy Weir, whose first novel, The Martian, was a masterclass in producing an engaging and accessible work of sci-fi whilst also getting the science bit right. It later got made into a rather good film with Matt Damon. So Artemis has some rather large shoes to fill.
So, what is Artemis? It’s…a few things, actually. The top of which is, it’s heist story. On the moon. It’s not just that, of course. The protagonist, Jasmine (“Jazz”) Bashara is being offered an opportunity to change her life – and we’ll get on to that shortly. What I’m saying is that, though this is a heist story, one where careful planning and unexpected reversals are the order of the day, it’s also a story about a woman looking to make something of herself, and the book is as much about character and personality as it is about chases through vacuum and dubious law enforcement.

The world – well, it’s in some ways familiar, in others…less so. The moon is a harsh place, at least externally. It’s cold, dead, and the slightest mistake could kill you. There’s a certain sterile beauty to it, to be fair – but Weir has built a moon which can kill, and emphasises the fragility of life in that environment. The larger part of the world, though, is in the city which humanity has settled. It has a certain retro vibe to it – domes rising out of the moonrock, habitable areas underground as well as above. Relatively small, the cultural cadences of science and technology are interspersed throughout – this is a people who make up for their lack of numbers with intellectual capital and skill. The city bustles and thrives, and the industry around it – aluminium, for example – helps sustain it; it certainly feels both alive, and familiar – and at the same time, ever so slightly strange.

Character-wise – well, the main focus is on Jasmine. I have a lot of affection for Jazz, as she’s known – a smart-mouthed young woman, with a laser-like intelligence and an impressive facility for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or otherwise putting her proverbial foot in it. Still, she has a sharp tone, and a degree of hustle and charm which it’s a lot of fun to read along with. We pick up some of her history through the text. This lets us explore wider issues as well, like how parenting, or nationality work on the moon, or the role of currency in the context of moon-living. Jazz is energetic and cheerfully self-serving, and if there’s hints of larger issues there – guilt, issues with authority, family difficulties – then they help make a more nuanced character.

Jazz is backed up by a fairly large ensemble cast – from snide EVA instructors who also happen to be ex-boyfriends, to seemingly baffled scientists. Jazz’s father, a man seemingly confounded by his daughter’s ability to do absolutely anything other than apply herself, steals every scene that he’s in, with a combination of pragmatic competence and an obvious love for his daughter that pours off the page. There’s others of course – engineers in life support, and a particularly persistent lawman. I think my only complaint is that we don’t see enough of them. They’re there, and serve the plot rather well, and give Jazz the contrasts and banter in her life that we need to see – but I’d love to have seen them in more depth.

The plot…well, as usual, no spoilers. But it’s a lot of fun. In some ways it’s a slow burn, as facets of a plan come together. But there’s enough going on at every stage to keep you turning the pages. When things do kick off, then there’s heart-in-mouth moments aplenty, tension broken with chases, brawls, and the occasional explosion. It’s a journey in exuberant prose, which is taking joy in both the science and discovery of it all, and in the personal dramas, the horrible mistakes, the bare-knuckle recoveries and the personal triumphs.

It’s not The Martian, but that’s a good thing. Artemis is strong enough to stand on its own. It’s clever, fast-paced, tense, and carries moments of sparkling humour and emotional weight. If you were a fan of The Martian, then yes, you should give this one a read. If you’re coming to Weir’s work for the first time – this is very much worth the time. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Witchwood Crown - Tad Williams

The Witchwood Crown is the first in a new series of fantasy novels from Tad Williams. I say a new series – it’s a follow up to his existing “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” series, the last of which came out in the early nineties. That series was thematically complex, and littered with memorable characters. Fans have been clamouring for a return since the original series wrapped up and here, at last, they have it.

Actually, a prequel novel (which we reviewed here) came out earlier this year, which was a direct follow up to the events of “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”, and set the stage for this new series. I’d say it isn’t necessary to have read that in order to enjoy this new series, but it does provide some valuable context, and an introduction to some characters which turn up again in The Witchwood Crown.

This is a book which deals with the cost of endings, and the price of new beginnings. Which sounds portentous, but isn’t always. This is Osten Ard after the final battle, after the defeat of the Storm King and his minions – usually the point in the movie where the credits roll and the triumphant orchestral music plays. But here we are forty years later. The High Ward of Osten Ard has rumbled on since the wars, and since a kitchen boy married the Princess and took the throne. If things have been quiet, there are still rumblings of discontent. The Hernystiri, old allies of the kingdom, have a new leader of their own, and he seems less than impressed to be living under legends. To the south, the Nabbani, whose empire was quietly subsumed into the Ward before the original series, are indulging in inter-family squabbles and complex scheming that would make a Borgia shudder. To the north, Duke Isgrimnur, the man who drove the Norns back to their mountain fastness, is unwell. The Sithi, immortal survivors of several cataclysms, and related to the Norns, are mysteriously silent. The kingdom feels perhaps a little complacent, busy with internal politics over external concerns. Williams’ prose is as vividly clear as ever, and quickly brings the world of the Hayholt, the icy regions of the north and other environs back to life.

Most interestingly, it also brings us the Norns. In the original series, they were largely faceless demons, a force antithetical to humanity. In the High Ward, there’s a mixture of the strange and the familiar – odl heroes and new blood, straining against the constraints of a familiar paradigm. The Niorns though, they’re something else. Where some of their interactions are familiar, their affection for family, and for their home – it’s often overshadowed by an uncanny feeling. They live in the bowels of a mountain, servants to the seemingly immortal queen who survived the destruction of their semi-mythical homeland, and is their surviving link to it. This has bred a society with a strict sense of duty, a degree of ancestor worship, and a need for control. For each moment of connection with the Norn, there was something else –a quirk of speech, an assumption of superiority, an emotional distance – which successfully marked them as being alike, but other. If the Norn of the past were monsters, these ones are evocatively alien – and no less terrifying for it. Williams has brought an extraordinary and extraordinarily terrible society to life.

 The heroes of the original trilogy now occupy the higher echelons of the kingdom(s) in one capacity or another, but forty years on, they’re older, perhaps wiser, and surrounded by a younger generation looking to make its own mark on the world. Readers of the original series will no doubt be delighted to see Simon, Miriamele and the rest of the gang again. If some of those figures – Binabik the troll shaman, Tiamak the swamplander – seem almost unchanged, still there’s the suggestion of years having passed. To new readers, I imagine Simon the high king, the commoner-king, may be a noble if conflicted figure, his patience worn down over years of fighting the same battles, his reactions to his grandson and granddaughter those of love mixed with frustration. In the context of the original series, it’s like seeing a man box with himself. The grandson, Prince Morgan carries the younger Simon’s impulsive and restless nature, and a sense of frustrated purpose – and that feeling is very familiar to those who watched Semoan grow up way back when.

Speaking of Prince Morgan – this one is an absolute joy to read. There’s so much going on. The prince is feckless, yes, and something of a rake – more interested in wine and warm beds than in deciding the fate of kingdoms. But he’s also obviously intelligent, and, given the opportunity to do some good, is likely to do so. There’s hints of darker nuances in his relationship with his father, Simon’s son. But what really struck me was the frustration of growing within the shadow of a great man, being defined in a relationship to someone else, rather than for yourself. The story asks what it would be like to be related to the man who saved the world, and extrapolates from there. Morgan lives within the constraints of his family, and if not desperate to do something more, would still rather be doing something. His relationship with Simon and Miriamele seems to be one of frustrated ambition on all sides (as an aside, watching Simon deal with someone with his own temper was a special delight), but it presents that frustration as part of a layered, complex relationship, a shared history which shapes all parties. It helps that in between all his drinking, Morgan is a sharp, witty individual, and his concerns are often valid, if poorly expressed. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does next.

The plot – well, there’s rather a lot of world building. It’s necessary, and an interesting read. It helps establish the stakes, I think, when we see the high Ward at peace. But like a pot on the boil, simmering bubbles of conflict begin to appear. In many ways this feels like a book of groundwork, of foundation. It’s fascinating stuff, and there’s riots, murders and mysteries aplenty. The last hundred pages or so really steps up the pace, as the metaphorical pot starts to boil over.  I’m struggling to describe things without spoilers, but I’ll say this – if there’s a lot of up-front build up to the narrative, then the payoff by its close is absolutely worth hanging around for.

Is it any good then? Absolutely. If you’re a long term fan coming back for a new look at Osten Ard, you won’t be disappointed. The complex themes, the layered relationships, and the cool magic and swords are all still there, and there’s enough of the old faces mixed in with the new to make it interesting. If you’re coming to the series fresh – well, I’d suggest going back and reading the original first, but I don’t think that you have to; it remains an intriguing, cunningly worked fantasy, and one which will reward a deep reading. In either case, I’d give this one a wholehearted recommendation. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tomorrow's Kin - Nancy Kress

Tomorrow’s Kin is the first in a new sci-fi series by Nancy Kress. It opens with a mystery, of sorts – an alien spaceship sat at anchor near the United Nations. But there’s more than first contact at stake.

The world as we know it has changed. Well, a little, anyway. At the start of Tomorrow’s Kin, the social geography feels familiar. New York is still New York – a thriving city of millions, going about its business in a way that the reader is broadly acquainted with. Kress does show us snippets of urban life – there are quiet moments in city parks, and brash, gritty diners. These are contrasted neatly with the quieter, more remote rural areas. Again, this feels like the calm before the storm – the world is one we recognise instantly, and the concerns are similar, if sometimes a little esoteric – damage to the environment, debates over immigration and sovereignty, economic downturns, and who’s going to win the Superbowl. It’s all mostly in the background, but this is our world, the lives we live, and in that context, it’s very convincing.

Of course, in this case, there’s also aliens. Quite what they’re up to, why they’ll only talk to the United Nations, and even what they look like – it’s all something of a mystery. I was reminded of Clarke’s Childhood’s End; the aura of mystery and creeping concern is similar. But these aliens – whatever they may be – are a catalyst for exploring larger ideas. The text follows one family, that of Dr. Marianne Jenner.  Jenner is brought to speak with the aliens after making an unusual genetic discovery – and everything unravels thereafter. Marianne herself is an interesting protagonist – a sharp, smart professional, who is self-aware enough to be confident in her competence but not feel egotistically brilliant. Her two drivers appear to be professional progress, and, perhaps more importantly, her family. She’s convincing as the logical, perhaps slightly frosty scientist; but her internal monologue gives her a vulnerability in thoughts of her family which is equally substantial.

That family is multi-generational – children and grand children – and more than a little troubled. A daughter is a forceful immigration agent, given room to discuss immigration, the economy, and other bĂȘte noir. This usually leads to a clash with one of Marianne’s sons – an ecologist, concerned with invasive plant species, rather than with the movement of people. They’re both given the room to be opinionated, their arguments crashing together between the pages. This isn’t a political tract, mind you – but the discussions are engaging, and help indicate both the personalities of the characters, and the state of the world around them (or at least, those parts of it which they’re concerned with). Marianne does have another son, Noah – a wanderer, a wastrel, a man who feels the need to take drugs in an effort to define an identity for himself, lost in the shadow of his siblings.
This is a book which tries to meld the drama of one family – their smaller squabbles and relationships and concerns – into the larger narrative themes it’s wielding. It actually works rather well, letting the broader themes be illustrated in the effects on individual lives. As the story hots up, the focus draws tighter around Marianne, tracking her through decades of discovery, and charting her family and world at the same time.

It’s surprisingly difficult to talk about Tomorrow’s Kin without spoilers, as you can probably tell from the above. But it pulls together some excellent science-fiction threads: it has a big idea, and it follows that idea to a logical conclusion. The story approaches its concepts logically and plausibly – and the trials and tribulations of the characters work, both because they make sense in context, and because we’re drawn into caring about the characters.  Alongside the big idea (or two), there’s a multigenerational family story, one with arcs of personal discovery to match the science happening elsewhere on the page, and with the ability to relate facets of larger debates into a smaller scale, convincingly and in such a way as to make for an interesting read.

It’s not perfect – it feels in some cases that the conceptual stuff, the clever ideas, the “sci-fi” bit, if you like, takes up the page at the expense of further depth of character, especially for some of Marianne’s family. This isn’t an entirely bad thing – the concepts on display are cool, and a lot of fun to read. I guess what I really wanted was a little more; we can care for Marianne, and sympathise with her tribulations, but it feels like there’s room here to tell more stories about her family, and give them a little more room to breathe.

That said, this is an undertaking of impressive scope – a mixture of multigenerational saga and hard science fiction, across geography and time periods, able to talk around some of the big issues of the day, and throw its own ideas into the mix. On those terms, it’s also a successful one – I kept turning pages to see where the story would take me next, and the ambitious and compelling narrative held up to the end. If you’re looking for a solid piece of hard SF, this looks like the start of an exciting new series.



Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Children of the Divide - Patrick S. Tomlinson

Patrick S. Tomlinson’s Children of the Divide is the third in his “Children of a Dead Earth” series. The first gave us a murder mystery on a generation ship. The second dealt with the crises and opportunities of first contact and the pitfalls of colonisation as an ethos.

This book takes pointers from both of its predecessors, like their snappy prose and desire to explore complex, contentious issues in a sci fi setting, and runs with them. There’s a lot going on here – from mining helium three, to kidnappings, local acts of violence backdropped against a larger, fearsome context. But to me, the thing that jumps out about this is this; it’s about consequences. Specifically, both for the characters and the world, it’s able to approach how decisions made decades ago are rippling into society today, and explore the results of those decisions – which are by no means all positive.

This is a world where humanity is starting again, its technology streaming down from orbit to spin up a fairy tale colonial city. There are those who remain orbit, keeping their eyes on the heavens, and those beneath, slowly expanding the settlement below. But there’s also the indigenous sentients, divided in cultural conflicts of their own. Some are happy to take the new arrival’s science, their miracle cures and agricultural tips, and otherwise let life carry on as it always has. Some stream into the city of humanity, building their own homes, their own lives, and their own dreams – becoming something new, escaping the social constraints of time immemorial. Some, of course, would rather do neither, and see humanity driven from their shores entirely. All of these are choices, and they come out of those made in earlier books.

But humanity are hardly the white knights of fiction here; their interactions with the indigenes seem, at best, like benign neglect. There’s a Native quarter, with echoes of the ghetto about it. There’s not enough law enforcement officers from the indigene population. The quarter is poorly supplied with electricity or running water, and there’s a simmering tension under the surface of inter-species interactions. These are big issues, but they also come out of those earlier decisions – where humans and indigenes decided on a non-confrontational relationship – and the unintended consequences, where a power dynamic has been left unexplored and unchallenged. It’s not the worst excesses of historical colonialism, but the parallels are there beneath the surface – the worst impulses of humanity and indigene loitering under their skins.

At the same time, there are some great symbols of the best of both species. Our long time hero, Benson, is now older, slower, more thoughtful. His adopted child, one of the indigenes, is coming of age – feisty, fearless, and ready to shape the world. Zer friends are, as well – sons, daughters and other-gendered entities, all stepping from the shadows of their parents. This is a new generation of protagonists, breaking away from the older traditions of their parents. Quite what they want to shape the world into – be it a multicultural society of tolerance, or something else entirely – well, that’s rather up in the air. It’s fantastic to see this sort of inter-generational handover though, and it’s very plausibly done. The teenagers, of any species, are about as insufferable and idealistic as one might expect; but they’re also a driving force for change, their white hot righteousness making them a pleasure to read, and their complex, conflicted relationships we’ve spent two books investing in giving them a depth and context that only deepens that experience.

It isn’t all ideology and family drama either. For those of you that like your sci-fi with some explosions, I can safely say you will not be disappointed. There’s more than a bit of peril, and if there are moments of violent triumph, or jaw-dropping destruction, the story wants us to know about the consequences of that violence too. The broader issues are blended perfectly into some fast-paced action. There’s betrayals, murders, and, yes, explosions – wrapped around stories about how people treat each other, how things reached the state that they did, intergenerational conflict and, basically, what matters to people.

I’ve always said Tomlinson wrote imaginative, interesting books that more people should read. I’ll say it again now. This is intelligent science fiction, with interesting thoughts on the broader human condition, wrapped in an absolutely smashing story. Catch up with the earlier instalments, then give this a read.